How to Cope with Losing a Horse: A Guide to Healing
Photo: Chelsie Brooks - Willow
I'm writing about how to cope with losing a horse from an unfortunately fresh perspective. The wound is still wide open, and my desire to talk about my experience is as strong as the urge to put down all my responsibilities, lay down, and cry.
I want everyone to know how special she was. The truth is, every horse owner thinks the sun rises and sets on their horses, and that's how it should be.
I believe that we have more than one heart-horse as we navigate life. We meet and fall in love with too many to have only one. My first was Rumple, a bay grade lesson horse I gave my soul to at age 9.
The second was Willow, many years later, pictured above. I lost her on September 8th, 2023, less than three months after she was diagnosed with and had surgery for bladder squamous cell carcinoma.
She was a substantial piece of who I am. These days, I go through the motions of school drop-offs, missed deadlines, and grocery lists, but I feel lost.
I've lost enough pets to know that this feeling won't last forever, but the grief tugs at me in different ways throughout the day, threatening to overcome my emotions on the regular.
I can't walk through the garage without bursting into tears, as it currently holds totes and bags full of her things: brushes, bridles, leg wraps, saddle pads, blankets, and medications that didn't work.
Losing a horse is a deeply painful and emotionally challenging experience. Willow was a cherished family member, as I know so many of your horses are for you.
The bond we form with our horses is unbreakable, and when loss forces that bond to break, it leaves a void that seems impossible to fill.
There is no easy way to cope with losing a horse, but there are strategies and resources that can help you navigate the grieving process and eventually find a path toward healing. Let's take a look.
Allow Yourself to Grieve
The first step in dealing with the loss of a horse is to acknowledge and allow yourself to grieve. The grief will be painful and palpable and undoubtedly bring you to your knees at least once.
Please understand that it is natural and healthy to feel a wide range of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, and even denial. Grieving is a unique and individual process; there is no right or wrong way to do it and no time frame.
Give yourself grace and permission to feel and express your emotions.
I know you want to be alone. I totally get it. But when you're ready, please know that you don't have to go through this by yourself. Reach out to friends and family members (barn family included), as they can all offer emotional support.
Share your feelings and memories with people who understand the special bond between humans and horses. Join online support groups on Facebook or forums where you can connect with others who have experienced similar losses.
My family and friends have been fantastic, but my barn family has come through like I could have never imagined. I have a ten and five-year-old who are also grappling with this loss. Watching people rally around them when they need it most has been a beautiful experience.
Good people help the healing process, and as much as you might want to avoid the barn right now, good horses help, too.
Create a Memorial
Honoring your horse's memory can be a therapeutic way to cope with their loss. The memorial could include anything, from planting a tree or a flower garden to designing a plaque or stone. Allowing yourself the chance to create is probably a much-needed distraction!
Don't make yourself too busy to feel those pesky, sometimes devastating, emotions. You need to work through those, but making a scrapbook filled with photos and mementos can really bring closure to a beautiful life chapter.
Your horse is always alive in your heart. It sounds corny, but it's entirely true.
Is my therapist in my top contacts? She was during COVID lockdown and she’s about to make her way back there again. I miss my horse.
I feel like I’m watching my kids bounce back quickly, as kids do, even though I know they miss Willow too. Meanwhile, I thrash around the deep end in a pool of my own tears.
Yes, that's dramatic, but regardless, Susan (the name of my actual therapist) is going to get a call or two. Or five.
Sometimes, the grief of losing a horse can be overwhelming and long-lasting. If you find yourself struggling to cope with your emotions or experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress, please seek professional help.
A therapist or counselor with experience in grief and pet loss can provide valuable guidance and support. Reaching out doesn't make you weak. It makes you stronger. You don’t have to do this alone.
Organizing a farewell ceremony brings closure and a sense of peace. Invite close friends and family to share their memories and say their goodbyes.
I know you love your horse, but I'm willing to bet you weren't the only one who did. Willow had a whole team of people who fought alongside her, ranging from veterinarians to barn managers. Each one was devastated by her final prognosis.
Lean on those around you.
Time and Patience
Remember that healing takes time, and there is no set timeline for grieving your loss. I think the phrase "time heals all" is the most obnoxious term on the planet, but alas, it's true.
Be patient with yourself and allow the process to unfold naturally. It's okay to have good days and bad days, and it's normal for grief to resurface even years after the loss.
Your emotions will change by the moment. On the day I wrote this piece, my little family laid Willow’s memorial stone under her favorite tree.
I felt completely at peace, the sun shining on my face as I stood in a spot she loved so much. One that I’m lucky enough to be able to visit whenever I want.
Fast forward to approximately six minutes later, when I walked through the barn and glanced into her now empty stall. I went from inner peace to incessant sobbing in four seconds.
Consider Getting Another Horse
Don't look at me like that. I know you were thinking about it! While it may be too soon for some, getting another horse can help.
PSA: A new horse doesn't replace the one you lost, but it will provide a new source of joy, companionship, and purpose. Your next horse will have some big hooves to fill, but remember, they have healing powers that extend beyond human understanding.
Take your time making this decision and ensure you are emotionally ready for the commitment. Ready or not, it doesn't help to see what's out there.
Every Heart Heals Differently
Photo: Chelsie Brooks, Willow
Losing a horse, especially in a tragic or traumatic way, can leave lasting emotional scars. You can successfully cope with losing a horse by allowing yourself to grieve and seeking support from whatever outlet feels right.
It’s okay to mourn. Healing is gradual. Your horse will always hold a special place in your heart, and their memory will continue to inspire you.
One of the worst feelings is waking up in the morning and remembering Willow is gone. It's a daily gut punch, but I don't expect it to last forever. If you're currently dealing with the loss of a horse, I'm right there with you.
Please take these coping tactics into consideration. I'm willing to try them if you are, and if you want to talk to Susan, I'm happy to give you her number.
Hang in there. This season will fade, but your memories will stick with you forever.